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Unveils open source OS-based consumer handheld

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US-based Agenda Computing today launched a scheme to take on handheld computing giants Palm and Handspring with the introduction of a consumer-oriented palmtop device based on Linux.

Agenda VR3

The Agenda VR3 looks like a cross between Palm's new m100 and Handspring's Visor, with a translucent white case, stylus, flip up cover and 160 x 240 16-shade greyscale backlit LCD.

The 4oz device bundles all the key personal organiser functions you'd expect from a handheld: diary, to-do list, contact manager, email, calculator and so on, all of which can operate in parallel thanks to Linux's multi-tasking functionality. And, shipping for $149, it's priced right on a par with its main rivals.

In place of the Palm OS' Graffiti character recognition system, the VR3 employs what Agenda calls "natural handwriting recognition", though the company's Web site doesn't say where the technology comes from. It will certainly be interesting to see whether the VR3's 66MHz 32-bit MIPS Risc CPU will be up to the task. We suspect that it may be fine for clearly printed characters, but less so for cursive handwriting.

Even Apple's Newton MessagePad had to have two separate recognition systems, one for printed characters, the other for true handwriting. Ironically, the former ultimately ended up - by a circuitous route - in Windows CE 3.0 providing that OS' character recognition system.

Still, character recognition probably won't be the VR3's key selling point: it's more likely to find favour - at least among the geek community - as a Linux box - it runs version 2.4 of the kernel - onto which users can transfer open source Linux apps compiled for the MIPS CPU. The VR3's graphics are based on the XFree86 X Window server.

Certainly, the device offers little else that its better known rivals don't do too. "We created this portable PC to address consumers' needs," said Agenda president Roger Richards. "The Agenda VR3 transforms the way its users stay connected on the go by providing powerful PC capabilities in an affordable, slim, lightweight device."

Which of it's rival products don't do that?

The Agenda VR3, along with its more capacious siblings the VR3+ and the VR3s, is set to ship next October. All three devices ship with 8MB RAM and 2MB, 4MB and 8MB extra Flash memory, respectively. The VR3+ will be priced at $199; the VR3s at $249. ®

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